Chasing Olympic gold

Gathered in the Georgia athletics museum on the third floor of Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall on Thursday afternoon were seven current or former Bulldogs that will soon be heading south to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Olympics, plus Georgia swimming coach (and U.S. assistant men’s coach) Jack Bauerle and two-time U.S. Paralympic Team sprinter Jarryd Wallace.

It was a fitting and inspiring spot for the group to hold a media session.

Among the 23 displays are many that celebrate the greatest teams, athletes and coaches in Georgia history. Sure, you can see Herschel Walker’s Heisman Trophy and Georgia helmet, as well as so much more that gives goose bumps to so many Bulldogs fans.

But take a close look and you’ll see that for all the team national championships Bulldogs have won – gymnastics has 10, women’s swimming won its seventh in March and men’s tennis has six, to lead the UGA pack – Georgia athletes have had a tremendous amount of Olympic success, as well.

One display near the elevator features two-time world champion and three-time Olympic shot putter Reese Hoffa (2012 bronze medalist). Another includes one of five-time Olympian (and four-time gold medalist) Teresa Edwards’ women’s basketball jerseys, and yet another features Nike shoes (with red and blue swooshes) worn by three-time Olympian sprinter Gwen Torrence.

When it comes to Georgia swimming and track and field, chasing Olympic dreams is right up there with winning NCAA titles.

“This is as satisfying as anything,” said Bauerle, who has five swimmers on the U.S. team, three (one a signee) on Canada’s team and one from Finland headed to Rio. “None of them (Georgia swimmers at the U.S. trials), if you look at the Swimming World predictions, were supposed to make it. … And the other part about it was, if it wasn’t for the last part of the race we wouldn’t have made the team in any event. The second half of each race made our meet.

“That goes back to the work and how much they’ve put in, and a heck of a lot of heart, too.”

While a lot of Georgia’s Olympians this year, as in years past, are from the United States, the Bulldogs have had many international competitors, as well. Two Georgia decathletes from Estonia, Maicel Uibo and Karl Saluri, are headed to Rio and Georgia track coach Petros Kyprianou has been named coach of the Estonian track team at the Games.

High jumper Levern Spencer, a four-time All-American and three-time SEC champion during her time at Georgia (2006-08), will represent her native St. Lucia in the Olympics for the third time. Spencer carried the flag in the opening ceremonies in 2008 and 2012, and she said as of Thursday St. Lucia had three competitors in the Games – two track and field athletes and a sailor – so she’s got pretty good odds for doing it a third time.

“Everyone (in St. Lucia) is looking forward to the Olympics,” Spencer said. “We have a lot of support coming out of St. Lucia. Everywhere I walk when I’m home everyone is like, ‘I’ll be cheering for you, I’ll be praying for you, I’ll be supporting you,’ so I know the whole nation is behind us.”

According to Georgia’s records, the first Bulldogs to compete in the Olympics were track sprinters Forrest “Spec” Towns and Bobby Packard and baseball player Henry Wagnon, in the 1936 games in Berlin. Twenty years later came swimmer Reid Patterson, and 20 years after that was high jumper James Barrineau.

Since 1984, when eight Georgia athletes competed in the Games in Los Angeles – plus a former Georgia student, Robert Dover, who made the first of five Games on the U.S. equestrian team – the number of Bulldogs in the Olympics has been skyrocketing. In 2012, 29 current (at the time) or former Georgia athletes competed in the London Olympics. The number will be about the same this year.

For some, whether it was Edwards making one team after another or Hoffa consistently being among the very best in the world for more than a decade, making the Olympic team was still an achievement but less of a surprise. For others, well, the reality of the situation still hasn’t sunk in yet.

Former Georgia swimmer Melanie Margalis (2010-14) didn’t grow up dreaming as big as one day making the U.S. Olympic team. 

“It was my goal to just swim in college, I thought that would be the coolest thing,” she said. “I mean, Jack obviously knows what he’s doing.”

Margalis had a great Georgia career, setting school records in the 200- and 400-yard individual medley. And she’s kept getting better since. At last month’s Olympic trials, she qualified for her first Olympics with a tremendous come-from-behind performance in the 200-meter individual medley, placing second. She also placed sixth in the 200 freestyle to earn a spot on the U.S. 800 freestyle relay team.

It was her rally in the 200 IM that was among the trials’ most compelling finishes. Margalis was in fifth place heading into the final 50 meters and made up a lot of ground in the freestyle leg to take second by .05 seconds ahead of Caitlin Leverenz in third.

“When somebody showed me the video I couldn’t believe it was me,” she said. “I had to ask, ‘Was that me back there?’ … I’ve watched it maybe five times and every time I’ve watched it I’ve wanted to throw up during it. I think it’s so nerve-wracking to watch. I know the outcome and watching it is still terrifying to me.”

Not on hand for the media session was rising junior Keturah Orji, who qualified for the Olympics last week in the triple jump, and two-time NCAA champion heptathlete and rising senior Kendell Williams, who qualified Sunday iduring the U.S. Track & Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon.

Just in case, Georgia might want to go ahead and start getting some more displays ready.

— John Frierson, UGA Athletic Association